A tradition of self-experimentation

As new and returning medical students come to Washington University in St. Louis to throw themselves into their studies, we remember that self-experimentation in medical research has a long tradition at the School of Medicine.

One of the earliest examples involves two medical school students, Alfred Goldman, MD 1920, and Samuel B. Grant, MD 1920, and graduate student Stuart Mudd, MA 1918. They began a series of studies on themselves hoping to prove whether exposure to cold increased a person’s susceptibility to respiratory tract infections. They took turns sitting in the large freezer in the lab of Joseph Erlanger, head of the Department of Physiology. Goldman and Grant took cultures of their throats before, after and during exposure to the cold in “Uncle Joe’s” freezer. Their experiments proved that exposure to cold constricts the mucous membranes of the nose and throat making the body more susceptible to respiratory tract infections.

However, in the course of these experiments they developed symptoms of tetany – muscular spasms and cramping. Goldman and Grant came to realize this was caused by their rapid breathing while shivering in the freezer. They followed up on this observation by conducting experiments with hyperventilating. They increased the rate of their breathing using a metronome to show that over-breathing caused increased alkaline pH levels in their bodies, which led to the spasms and contractions.

Goldman and Grant published several papers on hyperventilation and tetany which continue to be cited in medical literature. Both Goldman and Grant became dedicated physicians and teachers at the School of Medicine. Goldman also continued to actively engage in clinical research.

Carl V. Moore, the head of the department of medicine, once said to Goldman,: “There are few physicians in this world who can carry on an active practice, become an outstanding teacher, and make three or four major scientific medical discoveries to boot. I do not think I could possibly convey adequately to you how much you have meant to this school, to our department, and to me personally.”

Grant contributed to the school in many ways, and in his personal life became an inspiration to his family, colleagues and patients. For the last two decades of his life, after suffering a debilitating stroke, a simple trainman’s glove became a symbol of his optimistic determination. In charge of his own therapy, he insisted he should try to walk each day. He had a long iron railing installed in his backyard to assist him in his “laps.” Regardless of the weather, if it was freezing cold or blistering hot, he would walk, the thick trainman’s glove protecting his hand.

Alfred Goldman died in 1973. Samuel B. Grant died in 1982.